About Estonia – Kealan McLaughlin shares his experience

About Estonia: Kealan McLaughlin, professional ballet dancer from Canada, who has been dancing on the stage of the Estonian National Opera for three years, shares his experience as a foreigner living in Estonia.

Principal dancer of the Estonian National Ballet Kealan McLaughlin graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School in 2009 and spent years dancing in various ballet companies before his search for career opportunities brought him to Estonia in 2017, when he received an offer to take up the position of soloist after auditioning in a ballet class with some of the other company members. He has been living here for three years now, dancing the main parts of the best-known ballets as a principal dancer, and he feels quite at home in Estonia.

Kealan started an Estonian language course within the programme Settle in Estonia and he says that understanding the language, albeit at a basic level, has helped him immensely with adapting to local life. As Kealan speaks about living in Estonia, he truly lights up when the conversation turns to Tallinn’s charming Old Town, the compact layout of Tallinn and convenient solutions of our “digital state”.

To start from the very beginning, we ask Kealan to tell us how he happened to come to Estonia and to stay.

I first came to Estonia in March 2017 because the Estonian National Ballet was looking for new soloists, and I had reached the point in my career path and ambitions where I knew I wanted to go have an adventure somewhere far away from Canada. I came here for the audition without knowing very much about the country. My first impression (please remember that it was March!) was rather gloomy. I arrived late at night, checked in to the hotel, and on the following day decided to walk to the Estonian National Opera (locals call the building “Estonia”) from the hotel which took me past Viru shopping centre. It was a particularly cloudy day so my first impression of the city was gray sky, gray streets, gray buildings, frankly speaking a bit depressing. I joined the company for their morning ballet class as my audition and immediately after the class I was offered the position of soloist. I was ecstatic to hear the offer, but was not totally settled on the idea of moving here. I was invited by an acquaintance at the company to see and explore Old Town before I made up my mind.

When I went that night to the Old Town it felt like I had stepped into a snowy winter wonderland, and when I came upon the Town Hall Square I felt an energy of awe and delight rush through my whole body. I realized that this was a place I wanted to be, I felt like this could be my home. Ever since I was in ballet school I dreamed of living somewhere in Europe, in a charming old city with a long history, and of dancing professional ballet at a strong theatre. Standing in the Town Hall Square for the first time I felt like this was where I could have everything I had been yearning for. And I thought if I can live here in the warmth and light of this beautiful Old Town, then no matter how far I am from home I will never feel cold or alone.

I lived in the city centre for my first season but I managed to rent a very cute apartment in the Old Town in the following year. Every day, when I walk from home to “Estonia” theatre or back, I try to take time to enjoy the surroundings, to feel present in the moment and to find something new every time, be it a door, a window, or a roof corner I never noticed before. Sometimes I simply stop and admire the beauty and just feel fully grateful because I really do have everything I have ever wanted.

Knowing that Tallinn’s Old Town has aroused such emotions is very moving.  What else do you especially appreciate in Tallinn or Estonia as a whole?

I think about Estonia as my second home. Here I feel at home just like in Toronto, Canada. When I’m here, I think of going to Toronto as “going home”, but when I’m in Canada, I think of coming back to Tallinn as “coming home”. So, you could say I have adjusted pretty well.

I love how compact Tallinn is compared to a sprawling major city. It’s adorable! Everything is within a walking distance, or at most a short bus ride. It’s big enough and cute enough for me to not get bored, but small enough to where everything is within reach. Public transport is convenient here, too; for instance, in the summer I often take the bus to Pirita. It is rather rare that you have such an amazing sandy beach within a short bus ride from the city center.

Another thing I love are the opportunities the digital state provides. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t able to use these conveniences any longer. It’s so nice to be able to make payments with my phone or sign documents electronically, but what makes it so cool is how thorough it all is. It seems like every level of interaction with government or doctors can all be done digitally which makes things a lot simpler. But it does take some getting used to. I think other countries have a lot they could learn from Estonia.

People certainly play a role in one’s adapting to a new country.  How did the locals treat you? How do you find Estonians?

I have rather an international circle of friends here. Of course many are from the theatre, but I have friends outside the theatre too. I find that Estonians are very friendly and warm people once you get to know them. At first glance they might come off as rather reserved and even distant, but when you get to know them they are really fun and friendly. In Canada, for example, you could make a new friend while waiting for the bus, but initiating small talk like that with an Estonian will usually just get you a strange look. It felt cold at first but I have adjusted and embraced it!

And what about Estonia beyond Tallinn? How much have you had time to see, and what impression did it leave?

I have been to Tartu to perform in Vanemuine ballet theatre, and I’ll say it is quite remarkable for us to have two highly professional ballet institutions in Estonia for such a small population. We are very lucky here. Touring performances with our theatre have also taken me to Jõhvi, Narva, and Pärnu, and these are all very lovely places, but Tallinn is still my undisputed favourite. And I have been lucky enough to explore some of the nature outside of Tallinn. It’s really beautiful. The landscape here is very similar to the landscape around Toronto. If I happened to be standing at the edge of a random field or forest in Estonia without knowing where I was, I could think I was in Canada.

Had you heard anything about Estonia before you came here?

Not much. Of course, I googled it briefly before my first trip and learned some basic facts, but I had not heard much about Estonia before that. Having lived here and studied the country’s culture and history, I have obtained a wealth of new knowledge about Estonia and Europe in general. I think the most incredible event in Estonian history is the Singing Revolution. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that no-one has made an international epic film about it so far. I think that Estonia and its history aren’t that well-known yet. I believe a film will be produced sooner or later when a famous scriptwriter or producer discovers the story of Estonia regaining independence.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for foreigners who come to settle in Estonia?

I must admit I had a number of misunderstandings initially. It is at the very beginning that there are numerous aspects of adaptation to a new country which you simply don’t know and have no idea who to ask for help. For example, getting your paperwork right, renting a place to live, finding a family doctor and other things like this can be unexpectedly tricky if you don’t have sufficient information and certain things don’t even occur to you. So, I recommend you find a good mentor who will explain all the details and help you manage at first. I suppose (without having participated in it) that the basic module of the programme Settle in Estonia is also a very useful place to get information and guidance as soon as you arrive.  Organising your life in Estonia is in fact very convenient when you have figured out how things are done here.